An Erhu Master Captures a violent slice of China’s history

September 5, 2017

To understand another country’s history and culture, one should listen to its music, read that country’s novels, and see its films.

For instance, Reflection of the Moon about Ah Bing (1893 – 1950), a master of the Chinese Erhu, who in 1950, shortly before his death, became a national sensation as radios throughout China started to play his music.

Fortunate for me, this Chinese film had English subtitles, but were not the best quality and true to form for a Chinese movie filmed in 1979 (shortly after the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976), the plot was melodramatic with traces of propaganda that favored the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

However, to be fair, the brutal Civil War between the Communist and Nationalist Parties raged from 1927 – 1950 (with a short break during World War II to fight the Japanese invaders), and the CCP, with support from several hundred million peasants, won.

Mao’s Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution would not begin for years and for those that survived the purges in 1949 and 1950 (the victims were allegedly abusive land owners and drug dealers accused of crimes by the people they allegedly abused and victimized), Mao fulfilled his promise of land reform. Many of the landowners lost their lives, and the land they had owned was divided among the peasants collectively and not individually.

To understand the era of Ah Bing’s life, much of China (including Tibet) was still feudal in nature, and the upper classes often took advantage of the peasants and workers as if they were beasts of burden treated as slaves. At the time of his death, he was 57, and the average lifespan in China was 35. Today the average lifespan is 75.5 years.

Ah Bing’s real name was Hua Yanjun. His knowledge of traditional Chinese music and his talent as a musician went mostly unnoticed until the last year of his life in 1950, shortly after the establishment of the People’s Republic of China.

In 1950, two musicologists were sent to his hometown of Wuxi to record and preserve his music. At the time, he was ill and hadn’t performed for about two years. Six of his compositions that are considered masterpieces were recorded by those musicologists. It is said that he knew more than 700 pieces and most of them were his compositions.

The lyrics of some of his music criticized the KMT (Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist government), and he was often punished for speaking out through his music. If you have read of The Long March, you know that the peasants did not trust the KMT, but they did trust the Communists, and most rural Chinese from that era still think of Mao as China’s George Washington.

Before the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, China’s Communist Party treated the peasants and workers with respect while the KMT didn’t.

China Daily reported that Ah Bing’s story and music is still popular, and that the Performing Arts Company of China’s Air Force performed Er Quan Yin, an original Western-style Chinese opera, in 2010. The performance was “Based on the story of legendary Chinese erhu performer, Hua Yanjun, or Blind Ah Bing, the opera tells the story of an erhu performer, Ah Quan and his adopted daughter Ah Li, who struggle to make a living in the 1950s.”

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Lloyd Lofthouse is the award-winning author of My Splendid Concubine, Crazy is Normal, Running with the Enemy, and The Redemption of Don Juan Casanova.

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The Difference between Chinese vs English Poetry

August 22, 2017

Su Kent says, “In my opinion, the essence of classical Chinese poetry is more difficult and allusive. Because of the nature of Chinese characters, each line can express utmost meanings in limited words. The beauty is condensed similar to energy ready to burst out.”

However, traditional Chinese Poetry is similar to Western poetry in other ways.  Lines in Chinese poetry may have a fixed number of syllables and rhyme was required, so ancient Chinese poetry resembles traditional English verse and is not at all like the free verse in today’s Western culture.

Modern Chinese poets have written in free verse, but many still write with a strict form.

In the end, the form is not as important as what the poem says. Western poetry often focuses on love while painting an image of the poet as a lover.

Influenced by Confucius and Taoism, the ancient Chinese poet shows he or she is a friend, not a lover and often paints a picture of a poet’s life as a life of leisure without ambitions beyond writing poetry and having a good time. Su Kent says, “Chinese poetry draws much of its richness from the depth of meaning which these individual ideographs can carry.  Structurally, a classical Chinese poem usually has five or seven hieroglyphs per line, with each line creating a self-contained thought or image.”


In Chinese poetry, the poet must balance one thing against another.

According to legend, Qu Yuan, a Chinese poet, killed himself to protest the corruption of the time, and it is said that the Dragon Boat Festival was named to honor his sacrifice.

Battle
By Qu Yuan (332-295 B.C.)

We grasp our battle-spears: we don our breastplates of hide.
The axles of our chariots touch: our short swords meet.
Standards obscure the sun: the foe roll up like clouds.
Arrows fall thick: the warriors press forward.
They menace our ranks: they break our line.
The left-hand trace-horse is dead: the one on the right
is smitten.
The fallen horses block our wheels: they impede the
yoke-horses?”

Translated by Arthur Waley 1919

Note: The translation process from Mandarin to English would insure that the fixed number of syllables and rhyme required of a traditional Chinese poem in its original language would not survive, but the contextual meaning should.

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Lloyd Lofthouse is the award-winning author of My Splendid Concubine, Crazy is Normal, Running with the Enemy, and The Redemption of Don Juan Casanova.

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China’s Transition Years – Discovering History through Film

July 18, 2017

Farewell, My Concubine covers more than 50-years of Chinese history from 1924 – 1977.

In 1924, prostitute Yanhong sees no other alternative than leaving her son Douzi at a training school for Chinese opera where the boys are beaten, and tortured for forgetting their lines. The only escape is suicide. China’s decades long Civil War between the Communists and Nationalist rages on and then Japan invades China in 1937 and the challenges to survive become worse. After World War II, the Chinese Civil War continues and doesn’t end until 1949.

Two of the boys at the training school, Douzi and Shitou, become friends destined to be great actors, and they impress audiences by performing together. Through the years, with the political situation in China ever changing and not always for the good, Shitou and Douzi remain close.

Chen Kaige, self-trained as a filmmaker, was the director for this award-winning 1993 film. Prior to “Farewell, My Concubine”, Chen received modest acclaim for the “Yellow Earth” and “The Big Parade”. With “Farewell, My Concubine,” he won the Palme d-or in Cannes.

Although the film is in Mandarin with English subtitles, the story captured me from the beginning. If you are interested in Chinese history, this film spans several decades beginning soon after the end of the Qing Dynasty. On the surface, it is a story of two boys that happen to become famous, but they have difficulties and challenges like most of us do. However, the film takes us from the Qing Dynasty to a warlord dominated, struggling republic, the Japanese invasion of World War II, and through Mao’s Cultural Revolution.

I saw this movie more than a decade ago and I remember this powerful, dramatic story of one man’s life from the day his mother took a knife and chopped off an extra finger on each hand so he would have five instead of the six he was born with.

Discover Anna May Wong, the American actress who died a thousand times.

Lloyd Lofthouse is the award-winning author of My Splendid Concubine, Crazy is Normal, Running with the Enemy, and The Redemption of Don Juan Casanova.

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The Differences between Chinese and Western Operas

June 13, 2017

JadeDragon.com says, “Chinese opera is uniquely different from Western opera – whether Mozart or Wagner. There are so many details: origins, storylines, costumes, facial painting, stage rituals and customs, character types, and so on, not to mention musical usage that makes Chinese opera a unique form.”

For instance, Peking Opera is a combination of several styles of Chinese opera. The metamorphosis started during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911)  about two-hundred years ago.

Peking Opera focuses on historical events, legends about emperors, ministers, generals, geniuses, and great beauties.

Performances are a combination of singing, dialogue, pantomime and acrobatic fighting and dancing.

Today, Peking Opera is considered the highest expression of Chinese culture.

The origins of Peking Opera did not begin in Peking (Beijing).  The opera had its start in the Chinese provinces of Anhui and Hubei.

Experts say the opera was born in 1790 and was originally staged for the royal family and only then for the public.

There are thousands of these operas that cover the history and literature of China. Peking operas can be divided into two categories.

“Civil” operas focus on singing while “Martial” operas feature acrobatics and stunts.  Some are a combination of both.

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Lloyd Lofthouse is the award-winning author of My Splendid Concubine, Crazy is Normal, Running with the Enemy, and The Redemption of Don Juan Casanova.

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Where did this Chinese musical instrument originate?

May 30, 2017

The yangqin, the Chinese Hammered Dulcimer, probably did not originate in China. It might have arrived from either Europe or Persia about five hundred years ago and was adapted to fit Chinese music.

One theory says that the yangqin came to China on the Silk Road. A second theory says it arrived with Portuguese traders in the 1500s.  A third theory says the instrument was developed in China without foreign influence from an ancient stringed instrument called a Zhu.

By Chinese standards, it is a young instrument and was first heard during the Ming Dynasty (1368 to 1644), and has been commonly used in Chinese Operas since then.

In fact, in Modern China, the yangqin is a major discipline in the College of Music.

The yangqin has over 100 strings that are struck with thin bamboo sticks that have rubber tips on one end.  When struck with the rubber end, a soft sound is heard.  When the strings are struck with the other end of the stick, without the rubber tip, a crisper sound is heard.

Around the world, there are many versions of the hammered dulcimer all designed and played in a similar fashion, but each country has its own distinct sound influenced by cultural differences.

Lloyd Lofthouse is the award-winning author of My Splendid Concubine, Crazy is Normal, Running with the Enemy, and The Redemption of Don Juan Casanova.

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Ancient Chinese Bongs, Booms, Clangs, and Tinkles

May 10, 2017

In 1977, a complete set of chime bells were unearthed from the tomb of Marquis Yi, who lived during the Warring States Period (475 to 221 BC). These chimes were older than the Qin Dynasty’s famous Terra Cotta warriors (221 to 206 B.C.) were.

The sixty-five chime bells weighed about 5 tons.

When the chimes were discovered in Hubei Province, a plot of land was being leveled to build a factory.  The Red Army officer in charge of the work had an interest in archeology.

The officer discovered that the workers were selling the ancient bronze and iron artifacts they were digging up. He convinced local authorities there might be an ancient tomb buried below the site.

When the tomb was unearthed, the bells were discovered.  These musical instruments were an important part of ritual and court music from ancient China. An American professor in New York City called these chimes the eighth wonder of the ancient world.

No other set of chimes like this had been discovered in China, and this set was in excellent condition.

A project in 1979 duplicated four sets of these chimes. More than a hundred scientists and technicians were recruited.  In 1998, twenty years after the discovery of the original chimes, the project was completed, and one set was sent to Taiwan as a gift.

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Lloyd Lofthouse is the award-winning author of My Splendid Concubine, Crazy is Normal, Running with the Enemy, and The Redemption of Don Juan Casanova.

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The Historical Popularity of Chinese Porcelain

April 26, 2017

The wide array of ceramics and Chinese porcelains that made their way to George Washington‘s residence at Mount Vernon were a testament not only to his own personal taste but also reflected a popular fashion among the American elite.

Mount Vernon.org says, George Washington received his first shipment of porcelains from England in 1758 from a London merchant named Richard Washington. Although the journey across the Atlantic was often unforgiving for fragile ceramics, Washington happily reported that he received his order “without any breakage.”

Chinese porcelain originated in the Shang Dynasty (16th century BC). Jingdezhen in Jiangxi province is a well-known Chinese city where porcelain has been an important production center in China since the early Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD).

From China, caravans carried popular Chinese porcelains west: ceramic lusterware, lacquerware – snow-white vases, bowls, glasses, and dishes with sophisticated patterns. It was solely the Chinese who knew the secret of making the thinnest and resonant porcelain, making it very expensive in European markets. – Silk Road Encyclopedia.com and Gotheborg.com

This hunger for Chinese products like porcelain, while the Chinese found little in the West to buy, led to the Opium Wars, which Britain and France started and won to force China to level the trade imbalance.

After the Opium Wars, China sold the West silk, porcelain and tea while the West sold the Chinese opium.


Ming Dynasty (1368 – 1644) vase sells at Auction for $21.6 million.


Sotheby’s Masterpieces of Qing Dynasty Imperial Porcelain (1644 – 1912)

Lloyd Lofthouse is the award-winning author of My Splendid Concubine, Crazy is Normal, Running with the Enemy, and The Redemption of Don Juan Casanova.

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